SCREEN GRABS making in the Philippines hit a first “golden age” in the years after World War II. That was followed by a 1960s boom in which quantity if not quality exploded—mostly thanks to a slew of exploitation-genre co-productions aimed at international drive-in and grindhouse markets that stretched well into the 1970s. The emergence of a few higher-minded directors like Lino Brocka (of Macho Dancer) brought hitherto elusive critical acclaim to Filipino cinema. But by the century’s end even the industry’s most commercial big-screen endeavors were ebbing, crowded out by the greater extravagance and promotional power of Hollywood features. 

In the middle of this crisis, however, the affordability of digital technology began reviving Filipino movies—albeit largely thanks to independent and regional talents operating well outside what was left of the studio mainstream. Though their political context, style and content are very different, today’s Filipino cinema constitutes a sort of renaissance not unlike that which attracted widespread festival and arthouse interest to Iran and Romania in recent years. 

Yerba Buena Center for the has been showcasing this particular SE Asian “New Wave” annually since 2012 with its New Filipino Cinema festival, whose sixth edition opens this Thursday and runs through September 3. This showcase of independent films from the Philippines, co-curated by YBCA’s own Joel Shepard and Manila-based critic Philbert Dy, takes place at a heated moment. While we’re dealing with our own runaway POTUS here, Rodrigo Duterte’s flagrant violation of human rights in his “war on drugs” has resulted in what’s estimated as close to 10,000 “extrajudicial” killings so far, bringing global condemnation to his regime. (Naturally, Trump has applauded Duterte as doing “an unbelievable job on the drug problem.”) 

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Because it would be very difficult (even dangerous) for a Filipino film to directly address that issue head-on at present, this year’s NFC program instead addresses it via an August 20 Sunday afternoon presentation by photojournalist Raffy Lerma. However, many among the dozen feature presentations included in the series this year touch on pressing sociopolitical concerns in other ways. 

Several of the most forthright such statements come in documentary form. Opening night selection Sunday Beauty Queen is Baby Ruth Villarama’s portrait of a few among the enormous number of natives laboring abroad to sustain families back home. Here the focus is on some of the nearly 200,000 Filipinas employed as domestic workers in Hong Kong; these particular women make an elaborate ritual of gussying up for beauty competitions on their only day off each week. The islands’ past is scrutinized in Gutierrez Mangansakan II’s Forbidden Memory, about a massacre that occurred in the town of Malisbong, on Duterte’s native island Mindanao. As many as 1500 primarily Muslim residents were killed by Army troops amidst Ferdinand Marcos’ martial-law rule. 

Horror of a more escapist, fictive variety can be found in Erik Matti’s Seklusyon, which nonetheless dares to break a taboo—in a still-heavily Roman Catholic country, it combines religion and supernatural terror as a group of deacons on a retreat are confronted by all-too-literal demons. Also bordering on horror are two complex, ambitious features that scramble reality, fantasy and chronology. Keith Deligero’s striking puzzle Lily mixes elements of folk myth, social issues, melodrama and conventional faith in a visually poetical multi-strand chronicle of abused and avenging women. Jerrold Tarog’s slicker but even more baroque Bliss has Iza Calzado as a celebrity actress sidelined by a serious on-set accident. But as her recovery is complicated by medications, hallucinations, a seemingly evil nurse, two men claiming to be her husband, and more, our heroine’s grip on reality becomes increasingly questionable.

Also female-driven (like so many Filipino film narratives, though male directors remain the overwhelming norm) are two contrastingly lighter-hearted features. Jason Paul Lexamana’s Mercury Is Mine has Pokwang as a Mt. Arayat restaurant cook whose irascible personality is unpredictably softened by an American teenager’s arrival. In Victor Viullaneuva’s road comedy Jesus Is Dead, Jaclyn Jose plays a woman shlepping her children to the funeral of the father they hardly knew. 

Two of the Philippines’ leading current auteurs will be represented by their newest features at NFC. Frequent controversy magnet Brilliante Mendoza, who won a hotly debated Best Director prize at Cannes for 2008’s notorious Kinatay, is back with the gritty corruption drama Ma’Rose. It stars the aforementioned Jose as titular matriarch to a slum family that finds itself blackmailed by local police. Then there’s the latest mountain of moviemaking by Lav Diaz, whose A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery

If that’s a bit more than you’re prepared to handle, there’s Mario Cornejo’s normally proportioned Apocalypse Child, an acclaimed drama about a surfer youth adrift in a beachside town where Francis Ford Coppola famously shot some of Apocalypse Now. Also arriving with critical praise attached is Ralson G. Jover’s Haze, which is about youth as well—in this case dramatizing the real-life nationwide plight of homeless kids who survive by stealing yet adhere to their own rigid moral code. 

Finally, this festival of new work allows for one archival gem: A restoration of late, great Filipino director Ishmael Bernal’s 1971 commercial first-feature At the Top aka Pagdating Sa Dulo. It stars the equally fabled Rita Gomez as a stripper who becomes a screen luminary under the tutelage of a major director (Eddie Garcia, the still-active industry legend who also really was a major director as well as actor), only to discover…well, it’s not all glamour at the top. A caustic commentary on the sexploitation and other woes that then dominated Filipino cinema, Bernal’s debut has been called “one of the best films about filmmaking ever made.” 

New Filipino Cinema 2017 runs Thurs/17-Sun/Sept. 3 at Yerba Buena Center for the , SF. $8-10 (ticket packages also available). Tickets and more info here.

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